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The Elephanta Caves

The Elephanta Caves , located on Elephanta Island, or Gharapuri, about 11 Km off the coast of the Gateway of India, Mumbai, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to these caves, excavated probably in the 6 th century CE, is awe-inspiring, and also thought-provoking. Over the years, I have visited the caves a number of times, and also attended a number of talks by experts in the fields of art, history and archaeology on the caves. Together, they help me understand these caves, their art, and the people they were created for, just a little bit better. Every new visit, every new talk, every new article I read about the caves, fleshes out the image of what the island and the caves would have been like, at their peak. I last wrote about the caves on this blog, in 2011, almost exactly 11 years ago. Since then, my understanding of the caves has, I would like to think, marginally improved. Hence this attempt to write a new and updated post, trying to bring to life, the caves of Elephan

The Power of 8 - The Ashta Dikpalas and Ashta Vasus at Khajuraho

The four cardinal directions form the axis on which a temple is built, and are thus the basis of temple architecture. Leading from them are the eight directions, which are believed to be guarded by the eight guardians, or Ashta Dikpalas. In the temples of Khajuraho, great care has been taken by the sculptors to carve the Ashta Dikpalas on the walls, both inside and outside. They not only guard the temple, but also look over us as we circumambulate the shrine, protecting us by their presence. They are augmented by the Ashta Vasus, celestial beings which represent natural phenomena. Together, they enhance the idea of the temple as cosmos, enfolding within it, all the aspects of nature, both, on earth, as well in space.

The Ashta Dikpalas are seen on both, the inner and outer walls of the temples at Khajuraho. They are shown in various niches, seated as well as standing. Let me take you on a visual tour of the Dikpalas at Khajuraho…..

Indra, the king of the gods, is the guardian of the East. Indra is among the most important deties in the Vedas, and he is associated with lightning, thunder and rain.  He is usually shown holding his Vajra (thunderbolt) and with his elephant, Airavata. The East is considered an auspicious direction, due to the rising of the sun. Besides, Indra is the god of rain, and rain being crucial to life, he is shown on the eastern wall of temples.

Indra, holding a Vajra in his right hand, with elephant by his side. Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Indra, identified by the placement, and elephant by his side, Chitragupta Temple

Agni, the god of Fire, is the guardian of the South-East. Agni is one of the major gods in the Vedas, and, as fire, is the one who accepts offerings on behalf of the gods. As one of the oldest gods, he is depicted with a moustache and/or a beard, and is shown as being fat, since he consumes everything. His vehicle, the ram, is also usually shown next to him.

Agni, pot bellied, with beard and mustache, holding a lamp and parchment, with a Ram by his side. Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Yama, the god of death, is the guardian of the South. He is shown riding a buffalo, or with the buffalo next to him, and in his hands, he carries a noose and a staff or danda. Sometimes, he also has a bird in his hand or on his shoulder. It could either be a pigeon or a crow, both of which are said to be his messengers.

Yama, holding staff, damru, and bird, with a buffalo by his side, Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Yama, with skull cup and buffalo by his feet, Duladeo Temple.
The hair fanning out is typical of sculptures in this temple. 

Nritti is the guardian of the South-West. The name Nritti comes from “na-rti” or the absence of rules. Thus, Nritti depicts the one who is wild, who does not follow any rules. According to Wikipedia, Nritti is a goddess, while Nritta is one of the forms of Rudra or Shiva. At Khajuraho, however, Nritti is depicted as a nude male, holding a snake and a sword, with a man lying by his side, or under him. It thus appears that he is considered here a form of Shiva.  

Nritti, nude, holding sword and shield, with a human figure at his feet (head broken), Jagadambi Temple

Varuna is the god of water, and the guardian of the West. He is shown with his vahana, the Makara (crocodile), and holding a lotus stalk, and a noose.

Varuna, holding a noose and lotus stalk in two of his hands, standing on his mount, the Makara or crocodile, Javari Temple

Vayu is the god of wind, and the guardian of the North-West. His vahana or vehicle is the antelope, and he is shown holding a cloth in two of his arms, flying behind him, depicting air.

Vayu, with the antelope at his feet, looking up, Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Kubera, the god of wealth, is the guardian of the North. Kubera is a Yaksha, closely associated with the earth, and all her treasures. He is usually depicted as short and fat, holding a money purse and club/mace in his hand. Early sculptures show him with a mongoose skin purse, or a mongoose over his shoulder, and sometimes with an elephant. There are also pots shown by his side.

Kubera, hholding mace, lotus stalk, and a mongoose skin purse, with unidentified animal by his side, Jagadambi Temple

Kubera, with mongoose skin purse over his shoulder, and pots near his feet, Chaturbhuja Temple

Seated Kubera, with cup, mongoose purse, and lotus stalks, with pots by his side, Kandariya Mahadev Temple

Isana is the guardian of the North-East. He is a form of Shiva, considered to be one of his five aspects. He is depicted in a manner similar to Shiva, except that he has at least one hand in varada mudra, or benevolent pose.

Isana, Lakshmana Temple

The Ashta Dikpalas or guardians of the eight directions, are placed on the walls corresponding to their directions. Thus, Indra is seen on the Eastern wall of the temple, Agni on the South East wall, or the South East corner, and so on, thus facing the direction they represent. This is true not just of Khajuraho, but of many ancient temples. If you are visiting any, try to get an idea of the direction, and then identify the sculptures. Believe me, it helps!

Another group of eight figures seen on the walls of the temples at Khajuraho are the Ashta Vasus.

One of the Ashta Vasus, holding lotus stalk and scroll, Chitragupta Temple

The Ashta Vasus are a set of eight celestial beings, representing different aspects of nature, or natural phenomena. They are: Dhara (earth), Anala (fire), Anila (wind), Aha (space), Pratyusha (twilight), Prabhasa (dawn), Soma (moon) and Dhruva (pole-star).

One of the Ashta Vasus, holding trishul, lotus stalk and Kamandalu, with fire by his side, Chitragupta Temple

In the Mahabharata, the Ashta Vasus are celestial beings, who, prompted by one of their wives, steal the cow of sage Vashishta. The sage, in his anger, curses them to be born as humans, and experience the struggles of a human life. Aghast at the result of their prank, they apologise, and the sage modifies his curse. The 8 brothers persuade Ganga to give birth to them, and throw them into the river as soon as they are born, thus relieving them from the curse, as per the sage’s words. However, the brother primarily responsible for the theft has no choice but to bear the curse in its entirety, for not just himself, but all his brothers. He is born to Ganga, but lives on, first named Devavrata, and later called Bhishma. He lives through generations of his clan, forced to watch sons and grandsons die, before he himself can leave his human body.

However, there is another caveat to the curse – the 8 brothers are always shown with bovine faces (face of a cow) as a reminder of their crime.

Top: One of the Ashta Vasus;
Bottom: Agni
Duladeo Temple

Top: One of the Ashta Vasus;
Bottom: Yama
Vamana Temple

One of the Ashta Vasus, Javari Temple

One of the Ashta Vasus, holding two lotus stalks, Javari Temple

Top: One of the Ashta Vasus,
Bottom: Kubera,
Vamana Temple

Top: One of the Ashta Vasus;
Bottom: Nritti, notice the human he is standing on..
Javari Temple

While the story of the Ashta Vasus is something I was familiar with, the story of their bovine faces was new to me. It was only thanks to Dr. Kirit Mankodi, whom I met at Jnananpravaha Mumbai, and who very helpfully clarified my doubts, that I learnt the identity of the bull-faced figures seen all over the temples. He also helped with the identification of Kubera, whom I had never seen with a mongoose before, as well as a number of other figures I have yet to write about.

Since my visit to Khajuraho, I have also visited Kiradu, courtesy of Suryagarh, where the temples are similar, and the Ashta Dikpalas are seen there as well. Read Sudha’s post on the temples to see the Dikpalas there, and wait for my own post to read more about them! Meanwhile, I am not done with Khajuraho. There is more coming up, so look out for my posts next week! 


  1. Fascinating to read all the details of the entities represented by the sculptures and carvings at these temples. This was a great post, thank you!

  2. Thanks for linking to my Kiradu post, Anu. It is thanks to those late night discussions that my Kiradu posts got written the way they did.
    During the Hadoti trip earlier this month, I felt like quite the pro identifying the dikpalas and what now. :)

    I have yet to see the Ashta Vasus and looking forward to seeing them soon for myself. Hopefully at Khajuraho temples themselves.

  3. As I just saw the movie DHRUVA (South Indian movie dubbed in Hindi) . And I noticed a word ashta dikbandanas.
    And I was so curious about that word and by reading details about it on your article I found my answer.
    Thank you Soo much.
    As I'm curious to read more on it 😉


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